Ever since he moved in with Sherlock, John had been doing better. For the first time in months he was feeling something other than empty frustration and anxiety, but it wasn't a magical cure. Sure, his limp was mostly gone, but with the increased ability to feel happiness and exhilaration came all the negative emotions as well. John knew he was essentially teaching himself how to live again, but that didn't make dealing with the guilt any easier and so the outward steadiness concealed the shakiness underneath while he worked through everything internally.
There was a limit to how much John could tolerate from Sherlock. Admittedly the limit was fairly high, but it was there. Sherlock had been alternating between sniping at him and ignoring him all week due to their lack of a case. He was mostly able to shrug off the verbal missiles lobbed his way, but Sherlock could be vicious when he chose to ignore his already weak verbal filter. With his recently discovered talent for picking locks, he could burst right into his room to ask him some question relating to an experiment, then cut down any answer he gave. Twice John had to put down whatever he was working on and go for a walk. It was either that or do something he'd regret later.
John was a soldier underneath all the medical training and his ability to work under stress was unparalleled. However, this slow, emotional torture was new and surprisingly difficult to counter - especially when Sherlock could read him so well and adjust his tactics in an instant. For the past two days, he had been pretending as if John didn't exist and John was working more hours in the clinic to avoid him in case he went back to sniping.
But the clinic wasn't the usual safe haven that he had come to expect. Since breaking up with Sarah, she had made it a point to snub him at every opportunity. She also made it a point to send him only the most routine patients, making it supremely difficult to lose himself in his work. He'd been a surgeon, for Christ's sake, and now he was reduced to giving allergy panels. He normally wasn't a prideful person, but it was galling to still have all the knowledge and skills, but not the physical ability to use them.
Today, the weather had all of the patients in a foul mood, adding to his overall general misery. When his hand started shaking hard enough to make a patient comment on it, he made his excuses and locked himself in the bathroom. Hands fisted in his hair, he admitted to himself that he was probably right back where he was when he first returned to London and yeah, that might be a bit of a problem. For a while, it seemed like he'd gotten on top of his depression (or anxiety, or PSTD, or whatever the hell his therapist thought it was this week), but he clearly wasn't as in control as he'd thought.
John came back to the flat that night with a slight limp. His shoulder was aching from the rain and he was trying to walk in a way that would jostle it the least. While this had happened before, tonight he was too tired to try and mask the symptoms. All he wanted was a hot shower and his bed. He'd figure out what to do about everything else in the morning.
Sherlock was pacing by the mantle, muttering to himself. As John entered the flat, he raked him with a single, penetrating gaze and strode forward to begin stalking a tight circle around him. It was rare that Sherlock ever brought all of his focus completely to bear on him, and it immediately put John on edge.
As Watson began to remove his coat, the detective broke his two day silence by drawling, "Twelve cases of the sniffles, one broken wrist, one sprained ankle, and an allergy panel. Hardly the sort of thing to tax even your pathetic little brain, so what is it that makes it so you can't even control your own leg today?"
And that was it. Absolutely the last straw. John punched him, catching Sherlock on his right cheekbone and knocking him to the floor. He threw his jacket into his surprised face and leaned over him to spit out, "You. You did this! You can pick on others all you want, but you will not pick on me, understood?" Then he left the detective lying there and slammed back out the door.
When he reached the bottom of the stairs, John realized that he couldn't handle going back out in public right now. His anger was quickly turning to a sort of queasy hysteria and he didn't want to break down on the front stoop, because he was going to break down and there wasn't anything he could do about it. It made him hate himself so much more to not be fully in control of himself when he'd spent so many years training to achieve just that.
The back stoop would have to do.
He made it out through the screen door and sat down on the concrete steps under the little porch's overhang. The alley was empty in the heavy evening drizzle and John put his head down between his knees. What was wrong with him? His heart was racing and he couldn't stop shaking from the cold jolts of adrenaline any more than he could stop the tears running down his face. When had the tears started? He was panicking and he couldn't slow his breathing and this was just so not right and he hated this. All of it. How did he allow it to get to this? His vision narrowed to the step below his feet and he still couldn't get his breathing under control. All he could do was hang on tightly to his knees and try not to make a sound.
An indeterminate amount of time later he realized someone was calling his name. He raised his head from his knees and looked up into Lestrade's concerned face. The DI was crouched on the steps below him, jacket damp and shining from the mist and carefully not touching him. John wrapped his arms tightly around his middle and realized that he was both freezing and nauseous.
"Hey, there you are, mate," Lestrade said with relief.
John rubbed a hand over his aching face and pinched the bridge of his nose. He took a breath, but couldn't seem to get enough air. "What -" His throat was constricted and sore.
"You had an episode, I think. Probably a stress reaction, if I had to guess. You've been out here for almost an hour."
"Cold," was the only thing he could think of to say. Lestrade nodded and draped a jacket over him, keeping his hands on John's shoulders so that he could rub them a little. It was that simple touch that undid him.
John leaned forward and buried his face against the DI's chest and cried for how long it had been since someone had reached out to him like that. For all the times that people respectfully kept their distance or looked at him with pity. For the men he hadn't been able to save and the war he wasn't allowed to fight anymore. His life had been forcefully vivid; unforgiving sunshine that painted the world in oversaturated colors, matters of life and death, constant training and living for the present because the future was uncertain.
And then that last chaotic battle where everything came to a head. Too loud, too bright, too many situations and everything getting away from him and then equally bright pain. He'd lain on the glittering sand, staring up into the burning sky, and then he'd blinked and reopened his eyes to a pale room in a quiet hospital and the sudden switch had been beyond jarring. From running full tilt to a sudden stop and it wasn't relaxing, it was horrible to be told that his life as he knew it was over. The war was still raging, but the force of it had swept past him and left him behind, without purpose. This pale, wet, lonely, cold city - home though it may be - was no substitute for what he'd had.
Lestrade didn't hesitate in wrapping his arms loosely around him and just letting him get it all out. He didn't say a word, just let him hang onto him as long as he needed.
Eventually the smell of cigarette smoke brought him back to himself and John eased off the death grip he had on Lestrade's shirt. He took a deep, shuddering breath and sat up enough to look around. Lestrade kept his hands on John's forearms, but moved to the side a little so that the doctor could see Sherlock leaning against the wall on the other side of the alley.
He was in his full winter outfit; coat, scarf, and gloves worn like armor, as a defense. The high collar of the coat couldn't hide the angry bruise forming on his cheekbone and John winced. Sherlock flicked the cigarette to the ground and pushed off from the wall to stand at the bottom of the stairs. His eyes were dark, his expression inscrutable and he stood there like he was going to be able to brazen it out and not have to say anything.
After a long moment, John closed his eyes and concentrated on getting himself under control. He really was freezing and if he was ever going to get back inside, he was going to need to stop the shaking in his arm and leg. When he woke up tomorrow, he was positive that he was going to be mortified by Lestrade's presence, but right now it was the only thing keeping him from going to pieces again. Christ, that was an ugly bruise.
"John," Sherlock began, but Watson held up a hand and cut him off.
"Save it, Sherlock. Look, I know you told me when we first met about your mood swings and other idiosyncrasies and I said I accepted them. I still do. Thing is, I just need one place to go without judgement, alright? Just one person who has my back and sees me for me. Not the soldier, not the doctor, not the brother of an alcoholic, or as the person standing in your shadow. I'm sorry I punched you, but you do not get to pick at me to alleviate your boredom. Not like that."
Sherlock's opaque expression didn't change, but he nodded. After a moment of staring at each other, he relaxed his shoulders and said slowly, "I'm reminded once again about the difference between perception and intelligence."
Lestrade cleared his throat. "Right, well boys, I think we can take care of the rest of this inside. Sherlock, open the doors for us, please." The DI waited just long enough for John to decide that yeah, no, he wasn't going to be able to stand on his own before offering him a hand up. John was bitterly pleased that at least he was able to walk without assistance, despite the burning ache in his thigh.
They made their slow way upstairs. Lestrade must have read something in his body language because he stayed right behind John on the staircase, but didn't offer to help again until the soldier's pain overcame his pride on the fourth step. John sucked in a sharp breath as both his shoulder and his leg flared white hot and gripped the banister hard. When he could see again, Lestrade was standing next to him with a hand out.
John took it and pulled himself up a step. "Yeah, okay, let's do this then," he grumbled and threw an arm around the other's shoulders. Together they struggled up the remaining steps to the flat and stumbled over to the sofa in the living room.
Lestrade leaned down and dropped John into the center of the assorted pillows. Sherlock reappeared with a blanket and a cup of tea and offered them gravely to his shivering flatmate. The scarf and jacket were gone, but his eyes were still dark and when John reached for the tea, it was a moment before Sherlock let it go. John stared right back at him and frowned, defensive and embarrassed.
Sherlock turned to look at Lestrade, who was handing John painkillers that he'd pulled from somewhere unknown. John was still shivering despite the jacket and the blanket, but he honestly couldn't say if it was because he was still chilled, or a reaction to his outburst on the step.
Pills swallowed, he pulled the blanket closer around his shoulders and said to Sherlock through chattering teeth, "Why call him? No offense, Lestrade, I'm just curious. Why even call anybody - unless he stopped by for another reason? In which case, I'm sorry I caused a delay in your casework."
Sherlock shrugged. "I called him. I'm obviously not good with things like this and Lestrade and I have a -" his mouth twisted slightly for a moment, "history with these sort of things."
John raised his eyebrows and looked to Lestrade. The DI shifted his weight from one side to the other and shoved his hands in his pockets.
"He'd call me when he was out of his mind on cocaine," he said bluntly. "I'd get him through."
Sherlock scowled at him, but didn't refute it.
Lestrade went on, "I've known more than my fair share of guys on the force invalided out due to injury as well. These things have a way of coming back at the oddest moments."
John processed that for a second and nodded. "Well, thank you and I'm sorry you had to come over here, Lestrade." The shivering reasserted itself and he hunched forward over his painful leg with a hiss. Psychosomatic or not, it still hurt like a bitch. Sherlock saved the mug from his suddenly nerveless hands while Lestrade pulled another blanket off the armchair and tossed it over his shoulders and settled down on the couch next to him.
John had been numb there for a bit while he was focused on the task of getting himself inside. Suddenly he just felt wrung out, empty and cold. And embarrassed to have even one witness to his personal failings. He felt Lestrade place a hand on his back and begin to rub slow circles as he focused on just breathing.
Head still bowed, eyes closed, he said quietly, "I'm sure you've got other things to do. I'll be fine. I always come out fine."
The hand didn't stop. "Nah, if it's all the same, I'll stay for a little longer. I've got nothing on for tonight anyway."
John nodded and Lestrade turned on the tv to the latest match. He could feel Sherlock hovering in indecision for a moment before grabbing a book and a pen from the kitchen table and settling in on the John's other side. As the sounds of the game washed over him, he was able to relax enough to uncurl and lean back against the cushions.
He wasn't happy, not by a long shot, but maybe some of the aching blackness had been purged. Utterly exhausted, John pulled the blankets tighter around himself and allowed himself to be pulled under into sleep.
And if he came to rest his head against Lestrade's shoulder, none of them ever spoke of it.
The next morning, John woke up all alone on the couch, still wrapped in his pile of blankets. Blearily looking around, he spotted two scraps of paper on the coffee table in front of him.
The first was on a sticky note and read:
Had to leave for work. Gimme a call any time.
The other was the end page ripped from an encyclopedia. The hurried writing said:
You don't stand in my shadow. If I cast a shadow, it's because you've shone the light.
Also, we need new batteries for the torches.